The Essentials

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I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

-Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

It’s virtually impossible to go a day without asking someone how they are doing, and receiving the reply, “Busy.” It’s often implied that this is both good and bad; while we complain about being overwhelmed, we say it with a certain pride, busy-ness indicating success. This mixed message comes not only at the individual level but as a society. Commentators who lament the frenetic pace of the world also imply that this is unique in human history, an unintended consequence of the immense progress in our era. With the explosion of knowledge and technology, we have more options than ever before – how could we not be overwhelmed. More specifically, it arises from the globalization and connectedness begat by the Web. We are advanced, therefore we are busy.

Except this anxiety over lack of time goes back a long way. Back in 1910, Arnold Bennett wrote a small book called “How To Live On 24 Hours A Day.” He points out that people often try to live within a monetary budget, but that time is actually a more finite and therefore precious resource. “The supply of time, though gloriously regular, is cruelly restricted….We never shall have any more time. We have, and we have always had, all the time there is.” Time mis-management is a long-standing feature of our species.

The problem isn’t that we have too many choices now. It is that we are challenged to prioritize among them. This is true whether there are 12 TV channels or 1200. One way of looking at our choices is to categorize in two dimensions: timeliness (urgent vs. non-urgent), and significance (important vs. unimportant). Urgency too often trumps importance.

Greg McKeown, in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, stresses the need to focus on significance, and to identify those things that are truly the most important. Essential. This, of course, sounds far easier than it is. None of us lives in a vacuum, and we do not have complete control over what we need to do. When a Joint Commission surveyor shows up at our hospital, my opinion about whether they are “important” or not doesn’t really matter. I know what I’m going to be doing the next few days.

But we do have a certain amount of discretion, which we fail to fully utilize. And it isn’t just a matter of doing things more efficiently to get more done. Paradoxically, focusing on the essential requires a certain investment of time into doing, well, nothing. More specifically, thinking rather than doing. McKeown emphasizes that determining what is essential takes some discipline itself. It isn’t necessarily obvious, and may not already be known. Taking time to explore and ponder options, time for discernment, is a critical part of essentialism.

Our leadership team, which has been reading McKeown’s book together, is experimenting with some things to help us move ourselves, and the organization, toward an essentialist mindset. One thing we’ve done is commit to building “thinking time” into our schedules. Time for reflection, time for discerning what are those most important things we should spend the rest of our time on. It may not involve kneeling down in the grass, as Mary Oliver’s poem suggests, but it does involve paying attention. How else are we to know what to do with our one wild and precious life?



One Response to The Essentials

  1. Steines, Sara says:


    Mary Oliver is my favorite poet. Great – and personally meaningful – post!


    Sent from my iPhone

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